The Hunt for Vileplume... I mean, the Rafflesia

Day 15 of Asia 2019 trip / Day 13 in Malaysia

By A. Bush

10 minute read

Rafflesia in bloom

Rafflesia in bloom

One of the adventures I was most looking forward to during our trip to South East Asia was to find a Rafflesia flower. Today we were gonna do just that.

The Rafflesia flower is basically a giant parasite that can grow on only a few distinct plants. The biggest of these flowers are found in Borneo and can measure up to 1m in diameter. They take 9 months to grow and then they'll bloom for about a week and die. Once it dies, that Rafflesia is gone forever. It relies on the flies and other insects to pollinate.

Of the countries we were visiting during our trip that have the Rafflesia flower, Malaysia and Thailand, Cameron Highlands in Malaysia seemed to be the most accessible and economical for us to find one. In Borneo we could have technically seen one but they were found in a national park at least 100km from Kuching and you had to be in the right season and you were not guaranteed to find one. I picked Cameron Highlands because it was on the way as we travelled north in between KL and Ipoh.

To help us find the Rafflesia, it was necessary to pick a dedicated tour because you can't exactly find them on your own. The tour that the accommodation helped us book covered not only the Rafflesia sighting, but included a visit to a tea plantation, a visit to the local indigenous people and Mossy forest.

Personal rant - I despise tours because of the inflexibility and they attract people who generally can't think for themselves and simply mindlessly follow the tour guide without any care for others around them but us going on a tour was out of necessity. This tour that we were going to go on was no exception. /rant

On the previous day I was feeling exceptionally shitty (no pun intended) but fortunately I think my own willpower to see the flower I was determined to see made me power through today.

The Tour

Our transportation for the day

We started the day getting picked up in a jeep by our tour guide from Eco Cameron tours. He was a rather cheery and friendly dude but he had a very thick accent, which took some time to get used to. Inside the jeep was a young Czech couple and later we picked up an older German couple. They were a bit disorganised and we had to wait an extra 10 mins because they were also checking out of their room (or something). We had to even drive to the bus terminal where they dropped off their bags and they said that they had a bus to catch at 6pm and that we had to be back by 5:30pm. Err. Great.

Our guide drove us far out into the rural surrounds of Cameron Highlands and stopped for a bit at a rest stop for some snacks and asked if we needed a toilet break. This would be the last actual toilet for a while before our hike.

The guide himself didn't actually know where Rafflesias bloom as he doesn't go hunting for them himself and their lifespan after blooming is not particularly long. They die after about 3 days after blooming. Oh and they're also endangered and incredibly rare to boot. The secret is that the tour company has an agreement with the local indigenous people in the area and these people who roam the jungle often know exactly where a flower will bloom and ones that are currently blooming. It seemed he had a ok working relationship with the locals, and clearly he had been working in this job long enough because he would get intel from them and know exactly where to go.

Bamboo bridge into the forest

Our hike through the forest was particularly interesting as the forest itself was split into different areas depending on your elevation. As we descended lower into the forest the temperature got warmer. Bamboo forest became jungle. We'd also cross bridges built by locals made of bamboo that'd stretch across gushing streams. This path was well travelled by the indigenous folk, despite being middle of nowhere/heavy forest. Another thing I noticed is that the forest would have multiple long and fat pipes carrying water that stretch along our entire path. Our guide says these pipes stretch to up to 5-10km and need no pumps, just gravity.

The trail into the forest

The German couple were racing ahead for no reason. They zoomed ahead of the guide, who was taking the time to describe to us all about the different plants along the way. I found him to be quite interesting. The female German lady (who I will describe as eccentric) would race ahead about 50-100m wanting this hike to be done as fast as possible whilst the rest of us would follow the tour guide at his pace and listen to his description of the forest. We'd arrive at the German lady and she'd ask where to go next then she'd be racing off as if we were meant to catch up to her to make the hike faster. The Germans would ask the Czech couple what the guide had said. This would continue for another hour.

Ippy, being anxious and careful was a little slower than everyone else. The guide snapped off a ginger tree branch for her to use as a walking stick. It was a VERY good, sturdy and staight stick, and smelt nice.

Rafflesia found

Sooner or later we started seeing Rafflesia. Our first sighting was of a Rafflesia that had just bloomed a few days prior and had basically died. It didn't look too good and it was black. They die pretty quick.

Dead Rafflesia

Blooming bud, should bloom in 2 days

We saw some small buds of what were gonna be flowers but they were still a few days from blooming our guide told us, so we pressed on further. German lady decided to linger behind and when Ippy briefly looked back she had her pants down pissing on the flowers? What a weirdo.

These twin buds are a rare sight! The guide said they do not grow so close together normally. These ones were roughly 2 months old. Shame we were here a few days early:

Twin buds

Finally we found two that were actually blooming. They were a very decent size too! I'd say 50-60cm diameter? I was told they smell putrid and was meant to be the most awful thing to smell. This is meant to attract all sorts of flies and insects which is how they pollinate. In this particular case though I was able to smell it and it wasn't really that bad. I imagine though when it first blooms it's rather pungent as it releases all that aroma as it opens up.

This one had grown to full size and bloomed amongst the water pipes (also something that in theory, shouldn't happen, according to the guide. Nature finds a way!)

Rafflesia amongst pipes

The best Rafflesia we found, which was already starting to die:

Rafflesia

Rafflesia close up

We came across another dying Rafflesia:

Dying Rafflesia

German couple was itching to leave immediately and nagged and nagged. So we did.

Greenhouses in the area

Local Indigenous village

We stopped next at a local indigenous village to see how they live. They lived in wooden houses funded by the Government. We had a bit of fun blowing darts from a pipe (and failing) whilst the local kids watched. I note that our guide actually has a bit of contempt for the indigenous population, noting that they don't work and have lots and lots of kids and get money from the Government.

Dart blowing demonstration

I noticed a lot of strawberry farms in the area.

Lunchtime

After the village visit, our guide drove us for lunch to an Indian self-serve buffet restaurant called Kampung Raja.

Ippy refused to eat anything from the bain-maries sitting out exposed and opted for something that was made to order. The menu was a bit limited so she got a fried rice, which is something she never ever orders (as it is something you can make yourself quite easily). The German guy wanted to sample the curries sitting in the bain-marie so he used the serving spoon to sample the curries one by one. The guy working at the restaurant let him and didn't bat an eyelid. This is the type of morons tours attract. I regretted even getting the curries, they were luke warm. This was the 2nd bad Indian meal in a row :( 3/10 #ipinions

BOH Tea Plantation

BOH tea plantation

After lunch we were taken to BOH's tea plantation and learnt about the tea making process. The plantation has a visitor centre and is free to enter, you didn't need to join a tour or anything, but I suppose we probably wouldn't have gone here if not for the Rafflesia tour (need car to get to). We arrived in time for the next tour of BOH's first tea factory, which is also on the grounds.

The BOH guide showed us a full grown tea tree, which was right near the car park. She said the tea trees you see in the plantation are short because they are trimmed regularly and that tea from a smaller plant is of better quality than from a full grown tree. The short tea trees also yield much more leaves than a full grown tree. The scenery was quite beautiful.

Tea leaves from a shrub

We moved on to the factory where she showed us the machinery used in the tea making process. Basically, tea leaves are picked, dried, rolled using a Revovane and fermented. There were guys working in the background bagging huge bags of tea.

Our guide told us that many of the tea workers were migrant workers from Myanmar, because cheap labour. Hey, even in poorer countries, they import even cheaper labour :\

The tour ended and we took photos of the plantation. There were people outside gathering tea leaves. It looked like back breaking work.

Workers picking tea leaves

BOH tea plantation

(Best viewed on desktop and in full screen mode)

The tea plantation had a cafe on site, where we ordered a Teh Tarik. Heh. We were having tea at the tea plantation.

On the way out of the plantation, our Rafflesia tour guide pointed out the houses where the workers lived. They were wooden houses under lots of shade.

Mossy forest

Mossy forest sign

The last part of our tour was an extremely brief stop at a place called Mossy forest. This was a bit high up in the mountains and was actually kinda chilly. We basically managed to stick around there for a good 15 mins because once again German couple was hounding us to go.

The mossy forest was as described, a mossy forest. But it wasn't too impressive. Many of the paths were still under construction. We did the route as fast as we could because we kept getting hounded. The guide explained that they were redeveloping the site in the hopes of increasing tourism. But at the same time the government were not looking after the plant life.

Moss on trees

Moss on trees

The view at the “top” was nice though:

View from Mossy forest

(Best viewed on desktop and in full screen mode)

End of tour

We arrived back at the bus terminal at 5:30 as per the German couple's wishes… -_- The guide had kept his promise. After they left, he said that they didn't even buy a bus ticket in advance. He also said he knew the bus was full and that there were no other buses for the rest of the day going to where they were going. They were literally gonna be stuck in town another night. He said he meets crazy people all the time…

He dropped up back at our accommodation. Overall the tour was a bit rushed but I was happy that we saw lots of Rafflesia, so mission accomplished.

Ferm Nyonya Restaurant

For dinner we ate at a local Njonya restaurant. We weren't too hungry so we shared a Char Kway Teow and a Belacha Kangkong, now that we had a new found appreciation for the latter. The CKT was average. 7/10 #ipinions

Dinner

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